Antique clocks for common people

 

Although it is the case that classifies a clock as a collectible, this exterior shell or boxing, no matter how fine the workmanship, is really a secondary consideration. The governing factor lies in the movement or works. First, some clockmaker designed the movement and the case was patterned not for itself, but rather to support and protect a delicate bit of machinery. Similarly, the clock movement is, and always has been, a precision instrument designed for but one purpose-to measure and record the passage of time.

Considering clocks from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, gives a different perspective. From this approach we are concerned with the development of a branch of machine design. Here, as with all other mechanical achievements, the pioneers started with something elaborate and delicate and gradually progressed toward simplicity and robustness. Compared with the automobile of today, those antedating 1900 were complicated in the extreme. So with clocks. Likewise, American mechanical aptitude played a large part in the progress of simplifying design and bringing clocks within reach of the common people.

So, forgetting about cases and concentrating on works, a brief biography of the clock starts in medieval Europe and shifts to America toward the close of the eighteenth century. Measuring time by a machine composed of a series of cogwheels driven by mechanical force seems to have been a thirteenth century European accomplishment. From then on, English and Continental craftsmen now and again made time-telling machines for important regal, ecclesiastical, and municipal buildings. Practically all these were designed so that the dial was out of doors. They were unusual accomplishments beyond the purse of any but the richest. And they were all specially designed machines of which one and one only was fabricated. The era of even the most restricted quantity production was still several hundred years in the future. For example, about 1360, Henry de Vic of Wurttemberg, spent eight years making a clock for Charles V of France.

Public clocks of this order were complicated of wheel and more often than not had added features. Besides recording time, they often rang out the hours, and perhaps quarters, on bells, and sometimes incorporated mechanical figures that periodically performed for the delight of the unlettered who could understand the significance of such antics if they could not tell time.

Between then and 1600, clocks (known as horologues, while the term "clock" in its various linguistic forms referred to the bells or chimes) became more and more family possessions. When Henry VIII married that sprightly commoner, Anne Boleyn, his royal wedding gift was a little clock for her personal use. By the time her daughter, Elizabeth, had completed her long reign, London merchants and substantial rural landowners owned clocks as a matter of course.

English timepieces, like those of the Continent, were designed on a different principle from the ones which Americans were to simplify and produce in astounding quantities two centuries later.

They were all of brass with four posts or columns placed between the upper and lower plates while the wheels were held in place by horizontals attached to the corner supports. From the similarity to the lantern, clocks of this type are so named. But they had no pendulum. Above the rest of the wheels there was a large one, placed horizontally, that swung back and forth as does the balance wheel of a watch movement even today. Usually these lantern clocks were placed on brackets to provide for the pendent weight that supplied the motive force. Because they were none too accurate, a single hand to record the hours was considered sufficient.

About 1660 this lantern clock with horizontal balance wheel or verge escapement was a thing of the past. Christian Huygens, a distinguished mathematician of Holland, had adapted Galileo's pendulum to the clock movement. At first it was a short rod with a relatively small weight at the lower end and swung back and forth rapidly. It was so superior to the early type of escapement that many of the older clocks were rebuilt and pendulums added.

After this there was rapid improvement in England and on the Continent. First pendulums were made longer, then Robert Hooke devised the recoil anchor escapement. It was the beginning of the curved piece of metal that rocks back and forth as the pendulum swings and allows the vertically placed escapement wheel to revolve a notch at a time. By 1680 or 1690, clock movements with pendulum and anchor escapement became so much more accurate measurers of time that first a minute hand and then a second hand were added. By 1700, clockmakers began to produce movements that would run for a week, a month, or even a year with a single winding. Before this, thirty hours was the limit. Honest George Graham, who lies buried in Westminster Abbey, was responsible for this. His invention of the deadbeat form of escapement so increased the accuracy of the movement as to make it desirable and feasible to have clocks that required less frequent winding.

The beginning of the eighteenth century can be taken as the approximate date of two other developments of primary importance in clock-movement design. It was then that a wall on which to hang clocks was no longer essential. The mantel clock, operated with a spring, came into popularity and by its compactness replaced many of the hooded clocks. Along with it, tall or grandfather clocks made their debut. The latter, of course, remained weight hung with a long pendulum that swung back and forth at a relatively slow speed or beat.

For nearly a hundred years nothing startling happened with clock-movement design. American craftsmen in various sections made clocks following the design evolved on the other side of the Atlantic. While they may have made some movements of the spring-driven mantel type, the record, as presented by surviving clocks, indicates that they principally concerned themselves with tall clocks. The movements were made of brass with each wheel of both the time and the striking chains finished by hand or by hand-operated cutting rigs. This meant that such movements were expensive. Cheap clocks for the masses had not yet appeared. The movements were intricate and to add to the expense a cabinetmaker had to be called in for the case. The latter was elaborate, being of the grandfather type or, if the works were somewhat smaller, a half case, now known as a grandmother clock, was used.

By the close of the century American inventive genius, with its talent for making what can be sold to the greatest number, was at work in two separate localities, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In the one was the Willard family; and in the other, Eli Terry and the group of which he was the leader. Both sensed, subconsciously, the opportunities awaiting those who could make reliable clocks at reasonable prices.

For an appreciation of the opportunities one need only turn back for a glance at the United States at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thomas Jefferson had just been elected president; three states, Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee, had been added to the original thirteen and Ohio was soon to follow. Among the less than six million inhabitants were a goodly number of prosperous citizens, although the day of colossal fortunes was yet to come. But the furnishings and mechanical details of the average household were simple, indeed, with many items which the latter-day American considers bare necessities either unknown or banned as luxuries beyond the purse of the ordinary man. Among the latter were clocks. The man of small income had none. If he lived in a progressive town, a public timepiece kept him apprised of the passing hours; if he was a farmer, a sundial or triangular marker on the kitchen window ledge measured the time between sunrise and sunset, which was all he was presumably concerned with. A tall-cased clock standing in the living room or on a stairway landing was for the solid citizens of the town, and was as much a symbol of social standing and affluence as the rosewood square piano of the Victorian era.

With so many clockless households, the time was ripe for the inventive genius of the Yankee clockmakers. Simon Willard, who was born at Grafton, Massachusetts, April 3, 1753, and died August 30, 1848, worth only about $700, grew up in the old tradition of clockmaking. At the age of thirteen he had mastered clocking so that he could construct a tall clock with striking mechanism along the accepted eighteenth century lines and by 1777 was in business for himself. It was not until about 1796 that he began work on a simplified clock movement. This was what we call the banjo clock. Willard did not realize that he had invented a movement of any great potentiality. It was Thomas Jefferson who recognized its significance and induced him to patent it. This was done February 8, 1802.

The Willard banjo, known in its inventor's day as his "patented timepiece," is a movement of seven wheels, a relatively short pendulum and a heavy weight carried on a pulley that would keep the clock going for eight days on one winding. It was still a brass movement finished with the utmost care, but the tall case and the intricate movement were no more. Further, the Willard banjo was such an accurate timepiece that it won wide and rapid acceptance. Within a comparatively few years many other clock-makers were making banjos and Willard would take no legal steps to protect his patent. His only way of coping with the situation was to refuse to speak to infringers, an obviously impotent method.

After patenting this movement, Simon Willard devoted himself almost exclusively to making clocks of this design, and his brother, Aaron, also produced them in quantity. Making banjo clocks continued to the second generation with this family and Aaron Willard, Jr., who conducted a large business, refined the banjo idea, reshaped the case slightly, and called it a lyre clock. Nothing in the history of Simon Willard and his banjo indicates that the outline of the case was premeditated. The pleasing shape on the circular dial, the wedge-shaped housing for the pendulum rod, and the square box for the arc of the pendulum bob when in motion were simply designed as the most logical means of encasing that all-essential thing, the complete movement.

The banjo, o, while a great improvement on the tall clock, as far as space required and price was still beyond the purchasing power of a large percentage of the people. It remained for the Naugatuck Valley clockmen of Connecticut to become the Fords of the industry. In this section all endeavours trace back to Thomas Harland, who arrived in Boston on the same ship that brought the chests of tea which precipitated the Boston Tea Party. That does not seem to have concerned Harland. He went directly to Norwich, Connecticut, and hung out his sign as a clockmaker toward the close of 1773o His skill was widely recognized long before he died in 1807 and he had many apprentices. Among them was Eli Terry, born at East Windsor in 1772 and apprenticed to Harland in 1786. Here he mastered making brass movements for tall clocks. This was but the start. At twenty he had accomplished what was to revolutionize a large part of American clockmaking and exert indirectly a great influence on clock production around the world.

Terry's first wooden-movement clocks were individual affairs largely used without case as "wag-on-the-wall," but by 1800 he had a shop in Northbury, a part of the town of Plymouth, Connecticut, where he had perfected water-power machinery. Seven years later, having sold this shop to his apprentice, Heman Clark, he moved again. This time it was to Greystone in the same town. Here with Seth Thomas and Silas Hoadley, as Terry, Thomas and Hoadley, quantity production of inexpensive clock movements had its birth. Five hundred movements were to be made at one time. This was considered ridiculous and impossible by contemporaries, but the three business partners were practical men. At four dollars apiece for wooden movement, dial, hands, and weights, they peddled their clocks far and wide. Purchasers could either call in the local cabinetmaker to build a tall case or the movements could be hung as wag-on-the-walls. In three years over four thousand movements had been made and used. But Terry was not at the end of his experiments. In 1810 he left the partnership and moved to Plymouth Hollow, where he began working on a shelf clock with a wooden movement. By 1814 he had designed and patented his "perfect wood clock" which he designated as "pillar and scroll top case." This is the clock best known to collectors and, because of its grace, is well worth acquiring.

This was the start of a flood of Connecticut-made shelf clocks with wooden works. It was highly successful from the start and rapidly drove out the earlier wag-on-the-wall type. Unlike Willard, Terry had good business sense. Soon he licensed Seth Thomas for a thousand dollars to make his clock. In a short while both were making six thousand a year and the retail price was fifteen dollars each. Later their production had risen to ten thousand a year each and scores of other Connecticut clockmakers were producing clocks with wooden movements and cases somewhat akin to that of the Terry design.

Among these was Chauncey Jerome who had entered clockmaking from the cabinetmaker's bench where he started making cases. Jerome was more than a good mechanic; he had a sense of merchandising and distribution. He travelled far and wide with the products from his shops, maintaining a southern assembly plant to dodge restrictive state laws below Mason and Dixon's line. His business, and that of most of the other Connecticut clockmakers, prospered until the panic of 1837. Then, caught in Richmond and greatly concerned as to whether his company could weather the storm, Jerome evolved the final step in American clockmaking.

In the midst of worrying about his affairs, the idea of displacing the wooden wheels with ones made of stamped brass came to him. Here was a clock movement that could be shipped anywhere without damage from dampness, a distinct advantage over the wooden works which were affected materially by weather conditions. Also, and still more important, the stamped-brass movement could be made and sold for less money. "I knew there was a fortune in it," he states in his autobiography.

With this vision he returned to Connecticut at once and in a few months the Jerome clock with the stamped-brass movement was an actuality. The story of its almost instantaneous customer acceptance is too well known to need repeating as is that of how Jerome invaded the British market and won, despite the strong opposition of the Board of Trade. He literally sold them around the world, and Connecticut clocks told time from Finland to South. Africa; from Ireland to Australia; in fact, wherever common people could read the Roman numerals on the dial and had three dollars or its equivalent. American clockmakers had at last accomplished what had been their goal indirectly for almost half a century, a dependable clock so inexpensive that nobody could afford to be without one.

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